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Can Apple Surprise Us Anymore?

That iPhone 5 up there isn’t an iPhone 5. It’s a flawless computer image we had months before we ever saw the real thing, made possible by the fact that we knew exactly what it was going to look like. Exactly. Everyone did.

We used to look forward to iPhone day like Christmas morning, or some sort of decadent electric Bat Mitzvah party. It was shrouded in secrecy. Apple secrets. “One more thing.” Now, we get it all from China months in advance. Are Apple’s exciting days over?

Let’s get one thing clear: Apple still makes exciting things. The iPhone 5 is an incredible phone, and one that’s genuinely exciting to own. There’s nothing boring about the phone itself. But we knew what it was going to look like in May. May! We had photos of the iPhone 5 a quarter of a year in advance of it even being announced. So when it was announced, there was nothing to reveal — anyone who really cared had already seen it.

And for Apple, even back when people cared about the iPod in large groups, the reveal was huge. Steve Jobs wasn’t just a brilliant computer tyrant — he was the greatest corporate showman of our time. He made consumer electronics something people clapped loudly about, and watched local news reports on, and stood in line for. He could drum up hype and sweaty anticipation like none other, in part because the things Apple sells are terrific, but largely because they are awesome-looking, and us human apes love being shown cool-looking things that we weren’t expecting. Fireworks. The Oscars. The new iPhone. We love being surprised, and we love a company that can consistently surprise us. Apple had a monopoly on this kind of super-hype, because it kept projects locked down tighter than secret Santa at the Pentagon. The place was a vortex of mystery — until Steve trotted it out on stage and we squealed.

A video still of a leaked iPhone 5 case obtained months in advance.

Now China does it. Whoever the person or people behind these consistently perfect leaks might be, they’re on their A-game, like some sort of Shenzhen Robin Hood. Instead of the big show, we get the steady flow of grainy, watermarked Apple things from bad angles, in harsh lighting, and covered in plastic wrap. It’s the difference between seeing a movie and buying a bootleg DVD from some guy behind a CVS, but the effect is profound: Apple can’t surprise us anymore, and its stellar products yield an “oh, cool, here it is” response instead of an orgiastic communal jaw-drop. It happened with the iPhone 5.

A CG render we posted in June, a perfect fake long before anyone saw the real thing.

And now it’s happening with the iPad Mini — Apple’s other megahype-spurring thing. When those two gadgets wind up on our screens before Apple makes it official, the company loses power over us.

And frankly, good. We’ve been fetishizsng iThings for almost a decade now, far beyond the attention they command as top-tier devices. Apple deserves admiration and money because it makes wonderful things. But it doesn’t deserve to hold people in such thrall over what are still just products. We should be better than drooling at Apple’s feet as it waves a shrouded steak over us. It might also bring our expectations down from their stratospheric orbit, whereby anything less than an iPhone 6 made of crystal and sporting omnidirectional laser breasts will satisfy and impress.

When we start treating things like things, we can appreciate them as things, rather than messianic revelations. Apple might lose its hush-hush-kaboom cult of secrecy, but losing the power to shock and awe might be good for everyone. Besides, we’re going to buy the damn phone anyway.


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